The Cross-Quartered Year

I was delighted to discover via Facebook that my friend, the medievalist Karen Ralls, celebrated Candlemas yesterday evening by giving a dinner which featured Provencal navettes. She got the recipe from ‘Worldwide Gourmet’
To remember the special days of the year is to bring back a rhythm and pulse into our lives which is sadly lacking in modern times.
I’ll be writing about quarter days next month, but meanwhile feel I should mark this eighth point of the year. For some reason I love the number four, to the dismay of my fellow geometers who think I’m square. I like circles too, of course, but I like them best when inside (or outside) a square. There is something wonderfully stable about having four legs or four corners. I woke up the other morning feeling amazed that every single one of us has four grandparents who form the square in which our individual circle sits.
It comes as no surprise that the ancients saw not only space but time in fours. Four symbolises the earth. The reference to ‘the four corners of the earth’ is in the bible and, so far as I’m concerned, is a figurative, not literal, use of language, and always has been. But time, that is, the year, also divides very neatly into four with the solstices and equinoxes providing the axes. This is the Wheel of the Year.
The solstices and equinoxes represent the middle of each of the four seasons. The cross-quarter days represent the beginning.
According to folk tradition, if the weather is good on Candlemas, then winter isn’t over with us yet. I’m very pleased to report that it was not good yesterday but cold, wet and windy. Yippee!
Why is all this important to historical novelists? Well, before the Industrial Revolution, when folk were still wedded to the land, time was marked off this way and not with prosaic dates. Markets were held on these named days, rents paid, seeds sown, crops harvested. A character is much more likely to say, ‘It was the week before Candlemas,’ than, ‘It was the end of January.’ So if we learn to think the same way, it’s a big step towards authenticity.
I’ll draw out the Wheel of the Year and post it on Lady Day. For now let us light our candles to ward off the storms (poor Queensland!) and raise a glass to Candlemas, Imbolc, St Brigid and all the groundhogs of America and other hibernating animals who are beginning to stir, because it is the beginning of spring. Official.

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  1. It wasn’t very nice in South Texas, either (hard freeze, prospect of snow, which always freaks people out since the last time this happened was about 25 years ago) plus rolling electrical blackouts … but still – raising my glass, and hoping for a mild summer!

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